The UK's workforce is getting bigger ... and heavier. Paul Ramone looks at the changes in standards devised to assist the industry that's taking the strain
24 March 2006
What are we to make of the recent announcement from the Furniture Industry Research Association (Fira) that it has introduced a new standard for office seating because, it says, "existing standards do not cope with the increased weight of a substantial proportion of the population. People are getting bigger, placing increasing demands on furniture - especially seating. If someone is injured as a result of collapsing furniture, litigation can result."
The new standard that has emerged from this thinking (Fira 0055: 2005) aims to provide seating for people weighing up to 200kg (approximately 31.5st), whereas the most commonly used current standard (BS5459:2000:Pt2) only caters for people weighing up to 150kg (24st).
Phil Reynolds of Fira believes the new standard is very much a sign of the times but still represents a small part of the market. He says: "We don't get asked for this very often, but it has become more common for firms to demand it recently, possibly as a result of publicity."
Reynolds adds that the public sector has a particular interest in the subject but it's something that goes across the board: "It's not only important that organisations are seen not to discriminate but they obviously still have a duty of care to their employees under health and safety legislation regardless of their physical condition."
Reynolds is correct in saying that the British population is getting heavier and being overweight should not preclude you from working or working safely. According to recent statistics, around 42 per cent of men and 32 per cent of women are now classed as overweight, compared to just 6 and 8 per cent respectively in 1980.
But Jorgen Josefsson of ergonomic seating specialist RH Form believes it's important that such figures are put into context: "Using body mass index as a measure, the average British man is classified as overweight when he hits 13st and is obese at around 15.5st: hardly exceptional," he says. "The same man weighing in at 24st is, by the same definition, already quite severely obese and at a much greater risk of developing serious illnesses."
Nevertheless, Josefsson feels that as they are still valued employees their needs must be addressed. This goes beyond complying with the appropriate legislation and the employer's duty of care and becomes an issue about how they treat employees.
"Properly considered, it goes beyond dealing with essentially negative issues of legislation and the threat of litigation and becomes a positive issue of inclusive design and their relationship with the people who work for them," he adds.
Justin Miller of ergonomic consultants Back2 agrees: "Whatever your thoughts on the health implications, these people have to be catered for in the workplace," he says.
"I welcome the new Fira standard if it will give peace of mind. The health implications may then be dealt with on an individual basis where this is acceptable to the employee. Showing due concern for the ergonomic requirements of an employee - obese or not - may positively encourage rather than negatively dictate a healthier lifestyle."
Josefsson believes the new standard will have a knock-on effect for seating design but warns buyers that they must be sure what they are specifying: "Compliance with a performance standard does not necessarily mean a particular chair is the right one for anybody," he says.
"The BS 5459 pt 2 test already offers performance beyond the needs of the vast majority of the population. Buyers need to be aware, for example, that just because a gas lift mechanism complies to the performance characteristics demanded by the new standard, that does not mean the chair is automatically suitable for heavily overweight users." He explains that this can be a specialist area needing a tailored solution and it's often worthwhile getting advice as well as a standards certificate to meet your obligations to employees.
It may be time consuming to source different chairs for different users but it's important if an employer wants to meet their duty of care.
Miller agrees that buyers need to beware. In the past some manufacturers have claimed their chairs were suitable for the big and tall user but many of these have been hopelessly inadequate. He says: "I believe that the new standard will prevent such optimistic and false claims being made. For example, we have found the Bodybilt Big and Tall chairs to be the right solution for some users. These are American-made chairs guaranteed for users up to nearly 36st."
What seems to be most important is the fact that these chairs can be customised. A user who is 6ft 6in tall and weighs 30st requires a totally different seat to a user who is 5ft 6in and a similar weight.
And it's not just a problem for buyers of office furniture, as Reynolds of Fira points out: "There is a demand for testing of seating products for public spaces such as cinemas and bingo halls," he says.
Fira is increasingly asked to test products intended for use in public buildings. What is also important in these instances is that buyers try to avoid stigmatising people by giving them special chairs. For the most part, Fira is testing mainstream seats built to a different standard.
Reynolds says: "Manufacturers are much more aware of these sorts of issues nowadays when designing their products and it is important for them to adapt what is seen as mainstream design for a changing population."
Paul Ramone is a freelance journalist